When the World Comes to Bennington

The worlds of business, technology, and politics consult with Bennington by Lise (Johnson) Miller ’01 

It is well known that every winter Bennington students find themselves in the world, working in jobs and internships related to their field during the College’s annual Field Work Term. But what is less heralded is how often the world comes to Bennington. In the past year and half, Bennington has been tapped by a diverse group of outside organizations—from multinational corporations to tech start-ups to leading government agencies, among others. They come to collaborate, to solve big problems, to develop new technologies, to employ new conflict mediation tools, and to reshape the cultural space in which multinational business is conducted.

While its distinction in the visual and performing arts and writing has long been acknowledged, Bennington’s lively and growing role in the worlds of entrepreneurship has received less attention. That is changing. Increasingly Bennington graduates are being recognized for their capacity to move readily in very diverse worlds, their ease with the unknown, and their array of habits and resources essential for innovation in a progressively complex and rapidly changing world.

Patent Pending Technology

Often connections to the world begin with students connecting to the world during Field Work Term. It was that fact and the Plan Process that attracted computing faculty member Andrew Cencini to teach at Bennington. Liberal arts educated, Cencini is a kind of mirror for Bennington’s special fusion of the principled and practical.

Cencini’s combination of technical prowess and affability has helped him move with ease in the informal startup community. Since working for Microsoft, he has been on the development team for Bing, co-founded technology for Public good, which provides technology assistance to nonprofit organizations, and is now consulting with and developing software for the cloud computing company nebula, whose founders include the former chief technology officer of NASA.

“A genuinely broad-gauged education that invites experimentation and risk can bring so much to the technology industry,” he enthuses. “the students come out with more than one skill. They read widely. They understand music and art and social science. They just have a broader conception of the world.” Cencini sees this as the ace in the hole for Bennington students when it comes to developing computing technology. “We communicate more effectively and offer bigger and broader solutions to problems.” 

As if to test this theory, Cencini convinced his friends at the start-up nebula in Mountain View, California to offer two paid internships this past FWT. While the company is based in California, the FWT took place on campus in a room filled with $80–100,000 worth of computing equipment from nebula. They dubbed it the “nerd Dome.” over FWT, Ben Broderick
Phillips ’13 and Pratham Joshi ’13 developed parts of the management system for private clouds. The management system monitors the private cloud and, in place of a human IT professional, collects diagnostics. “they were in the guts of the system,” explains Cencini. “they were writing code that will run on devices that they’ve probably never seen before. It was a really, really juicy problem.” At the end of their work, Cencini and the students were added as authors to one of the patents related to the hardware they had developed. One was asked to work at nebula when he graduates, and both have that patent to show to employers. “A pretty big deal for them,” says Cencini. “I didn’t have a patent at 22!”

Previously, nebula had engaged interns only from Stanford and Waterloo—A-list tech schools. “At the beginning of FWT they were like, ‘Whoa, this is an intern project?’ now they’re asking me, ‘Who can you get us for the summer?,’” says Cencini. Future internships at nebula will be based in Mountain View. That’s not all. Cencini has plans to arrange other internships in the hardware industry in Seattle. He says, “I have contacts. And because the students worked so well with nebula, I can see broadening this experience next year. it’s a win-win for everybody involved.”

Influencing And Being Influenced By Business

in the spring of 2011, Claudy Jongstra, whose studio was commissioned to design tapestries for the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), described the idea and principles behind Bennington’s curricular initiative to Feike Sijbesma, Ceo of the $13-billion multinational company, Royal DSM. Sijbesma was so struck by the similarity between his own philosophy—to use private resources for public good—that he sent President Coleman an email inviting a conversation and collaboration.

Headquartered in the netherlands, DSM employs 23,000 people globally. A partner of the United nations’ World Food Programme, DSM is committed to using private profits and gains to respond to the world’s most pressing needs. On a World economic Forum panel in January, Sijbesma, with notable directness and simplicity, states that because private business holds much of the world’s money, it holds the key to solving many of the world’s problems. “it should be a primary goal of the company to make the world a better place. Profit is not a goal; it’s a means.”

At Bennington, President Coleman was applying similar principles by bringing the world’s most pressing problems directly into the classroom. now there was a new dimension to consider—the potential for a dynamic interplay between the College and the private sector. “Most stories about college are about jobs. How colleges should prepare students for jobs, train them to have certain skills, to become more employable,” Coleman says. “But no one ever asks industry 'what are you offering to our most talented graduates to make your world sufficiently attuned to their values?' the point is, it is time this conversation went in both directions. DSM is a stellar example of a company that has the complex mix of values and a commitment to the long view that our graduates are seeking. They invite rather than avoid the conversation about values.”

A proposal to use FWT to build a living bridge between the College and DSM has been adopted by both the College and DSM. This year the first four students from Bennington spent their FWT at DSM.

Hilary whitney ’14 was one of them. Over Field Work term she worked for the Strategic Business intelligence unit within DSM’s pharmaceuticals branch. The branch currently makes ingredients for companies that manufacture drugs, and they asked Whitney to take on the independent project of researching the industry of authorized generics. An authorized generic is a drug whose patent and master files have been sold to another company that can then manufacture and sell it themselves under its original brand name. In other words, buy a drug’s recipe, patent, and brand name, and you can then control production, sales, profit, and partnerships.

But as Whitney soon discovered, the generic drug industry is also fraught with ethical quandaries. How can drugs be kept affordable for those in developing nations while keeping their recipes intact and maintaining the intellectual property rights? After a great deal of research, Whitney made a recommendation. “I recommended that if DSM were to move into the authorized generics industry, they should apply their social consciousness to their business strategy as they have with other products and divisions.” in nutrition, DSM openly partners with the World Food Programme, sells supplement ingredients at marginal costs to the world’s largest vitamin producer, and gives away vitamin packets globally. “it’s not just charity,” says Whitney. “it’s a platform, their vision of restructuring business to follow a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. I think their pharma could have a similarly transparent ethical commitment as they advance their business strategy.”

On their last day, Whitney and her fellow Bennington interns gave a presentation to a group that included Hugh Welsh, the president of the company. “the guy at the top of the pyramid heard my idea! We ended up having a little brainstorming session,” Whitney exclaims. “And that is what made this Field Work term experience so remarkable. Everyone at the company was so receptive and so excited to have us there. They truly valued our thoughts and our perspective and took seriously the role of teaching. They were willing to both teach us and learn from us.”

Developing a New Language To Mediate Century Old Conflicts

Last spring, Bennington faculty members Tom Bogdan and Susan Sgorbati traveled to a kibbutz in southern Israel to give workshops at the Arava institute for Environmental Studies, a growing organization of environmental activists and engineers seeking solutions to the Middle east’s need for ready water, sustainable energy, and agriculture that grows in high-salinity low-water conditions. For the purposes of peace-building and training future environmental leaders for the region, the Arava institute deliberately admits students from different backgrounds; in addition to international students, it selects, in equal proportion, Israeli Jews and Arabs, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan. Rabbi Michael Cohen, who teaches conflict resolution at Bennington alongside Sgorbati, recommended his colleague for the institute’s workshop series supported by a grant from the U.S. State Department for “Developing Cultural Awareness, Peace-Building and Democracy for environmental leadership in the Middle east.”

After the first class, a student took Sgorbati aside. He said, “I don’t want to be rude, but this isn’t working. You see, some of the words we are speaking about—‘collaboration, mediation, freedom’—their meanings are compromised for me as a Palestinian. For example, ‘collaboration,’ can be defined as ‘collaborating with the enemy.’” He wasn’t the only student who could not trust that Sgorbati’s training would help them resolve the chronic conflicts they dealt with. So Sgorbati began to discuss her emergent improvisation work with the entire class.

Emergent improvisation—a system of dance composition and group communication that fosters collective decision-making. Sgorbati uses the science of emergent systems in teaching and observing improvisation ensembles in the dance studio.

And in describing her other work, something unexpected happened. “They were really interested in the principles of organic structuring. We discussed self-organization and pattern recognition. they were interested in adapting these principles to resolve conflicts.” Developing ideas with the group, Sgorbati invited them to propose a conflict to work on, applying these principles. they proposed a conflict both local and essential to the region: sharing water in the lower Jordan River Valley.

The group made up of Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, European, South American, Canadian, and American students developed a 10-step resolution model. “it was a phenomenal success,” Sgorbati says. “together they conceived of agreements that allowed different communities along the Jordan River to access water and agencies that would facilitate their communication and representation. Their interest in the environment and complex systems allowed them to challenge their long-standing assumptions of the Israel/Palestine conflict. It was a puzzle, and they solved it together.”

Enter Government Agencies

This was not Sgorbati’s first encounter with water issues. The previous fall, on the heels of the devastating tropical storm Irene, Sgorbati hosted the Water Dialogues at CAPA. Shira Sternberg ’05 helped to organize a White House Round table at the College with the Regional Administrator of the EPA, Curt Spalding. What happened next has become the telltale of a Bennington success. Spalding found the dialogues so fruitful his office called Sgorbati afterward to suggest a CAPA-EPA collaboration.

The Environmental Protection Agency has 10 regional offices with headquarters in DC. every two years one region becomes the liaison between each of the regions and the DC headquarters. Boston’s turn as liaison was coming up, and the office was interested in gathering more information about how the other regional offices were organized to help communication throughout the country. Ready to apply Bennington’s collective intellect to the problem, Sgorbati designed a course in which students examined current structures of the 10 regions of the EPA, collecting data on how each region was organized, their different roles and programs. the final product was a new national organization chart. The class then invited EPA staff to come to Bennington, where they shared the information and asked them questions about how they work. They were impressed by the students’ work and elected to share the new organization chart. The new organizational chart with the national public affairs directors. It is now also used by some senior staff offices in DC, including the chief-of-staff and White House liaison.